Of the three Mahendra Singh Dhonis who served Indian cricket—the wicketkeeper, the batsman and the captain—each would find a place in an all-time Indian one-day XI. This might make him the finest player to have turned out for India in coloured clothes; only Kapil Dev and Sachin Tendulkar challenge him for the title, with Virat Kohli possibly getting there.
Yet, and this is the most amazing aspect of the Dhoni success, he is not a natural in any of these fields. As an outstanding wicketkeeper he has expanded the horizons of his craft with his short-arm jab while stumping against spinners to his reverse flick which hits the stumps and gets startled batsmen run out. Yet, these are testimony to his athletic skills. He can be the despair of those who worship at the altar of technique, and is often characterised as an athlete who wears gloves rather than a natural who took to the job as if by right.
Likewise with his batting. The Dhoni Way is unique; young batsmen attempt to imitate him at their own peril. It works for Dhoni because of his physical prowess and superb hand-eye co-ordination. That also explains why with age it sometimes deserts him. It takes much self-awareness to be effective at a less dramatic level; fewer helicopter shots, fewer gasp-inducing gap-finders. Dhoni seems to have found the path.
He should take inspiration from the great Rohan Kanhai. The West Indies batsman, one year older than Dhoni will be at the World Cup, played a crucial role in the 1975 final, getting a sound half-century that allowed skipper Clive Lloyd to unleash the strokes that won the trophy.
Captaincy came to Dhoni after his demeanour first made an impression. He was calm, in control and he knew his players. It is a rare combination, and a significant factor in Dhoni being selected for his fourth World Cup. He is still one of the quickest runners between wickets, and his reading of the one-day game is second to none. Skipper Virat Kohli relies on him—during the Australia series it appeared as if Dhoni was the undesignated captain when India were fielding.
As an ODI great, Dhoni is a nerveless, sound finisher constantly calculating, altering the geometry of batting.
Dhoni started off without any natural advantages in the three areas he came to dominate—batting, keeping and captaincy, and taught himself the essence of all excellence: the elimination of the unnecessary. If in the early years he looked flamboyant behind the wickets—his flowing hair adding to the image—it had to do with his unsure footwork which caused him to lunge and dive, letting athleticism make up for technical deficiencies. With experience came self-knowledge, and a deeper understanding of time and space, so crucial for success behind and in front of the stumps. It was cricket intelligence of a high order and saw him lead India to three ICC titles: the World T20 in 2007, the 50-over World Cup in 2011 and the Champions Trophy in 2013. No other captain has done this.
Greg Chappell admires Dhoni for his ability to “manage the dynamics of the Indian dressing room”. Only an outsider would have noticed that; Indians take dressing room turmoil for granted. Vital as Dhoni’s contributions on the field have been, his legacy will be equally a matter of what he achieved off it, both actively and as a symbol.
As India captain, he carried on the work of Sourav Ganguly, encouraging talent rather than focusing on background, ensuring that players, who, like himself came from non-traditional centres, felt comfortable in the dressing room. Ironically, Ganguly and he traversed different paths personally to achieve the same goal. In Ganguly’s case, the rich man’s son with all the creature comforts at his disposal had to train himself to understand the insecurities of the less fortunate from the boondocks. Dhoni, from the boondocks, had to teach himself to deal with the more worldly from the big cities. If either had failed, the rich vein of players from small towns, which today forms the backbone of the Indian team, might have dried up.
Yet, despite his record, both as player and captain (which included taking India to the No. 1 ranking), Dhoni might have under-performed in Test cricket. The early success may have made him risk-averse and a safety-first captain. Of his first 27 Tests (he led in 60), he won 15 and didn’t lose a series. The win percentage then was better than that of Clive Lloyd, Richie Benaud, Ian Chappell, Imran Khan and Mark Taylor. His first loss came in his 12thTest. Somehow that added to the pressure, and not losing became more important than attempting to win. He had a tendency to let things happen rather than make things happen, and following two washouts in England and Australia when his captaincy was rescued by the BCCI chief N Srinivasan, he seemed to find it a heavy burden.
What kept him in the hot seat, I suspect, was IPL and his splendid leadership of the Chennai Super Kings. It was a format he enjoyed, he was successful and the fans of his team took him to heart. In his own words, it was a marriage made in the matrimonial columns. Love came post facto, and remained through the dark days of the two-year ban the team suffered.
It wasn’t surprising when Dhoni gave up captaincy of the national team; what was surprising was the announcement in the middle of a Test series in Australia. That was unlike the clear-thinking, all-factors-considering Dhoni India had come to idolise. “I want a team that can stand before an advancing truck,” he had said, and had proceeded to build just such a one.
Overturning conventional wisdom, Anil Kumble once said that a team is only as good as its captain. And Dhoni’s team was the best in the world.
Dhoni will go down as one of the greats of the short game. As a nerveless, mathematically sound finisher, constantly calculating, constantly altering the geometry of batsmanship. Not since Viv Richards has a batsman made the bowlers so nervous so consistently. “When you finish many games,” Dhoni once said, “people remember the ones you have not finished.” It put his efforts in perspective.
The abiding Indian image of the World Cup will remain Dhoni’s six to win the 2011 title. Did the suggestion of a smile break through on his face? Dhoni remains a private individual few can claim to know well. Of all contemporary cricketers he is most likely to retire completely from the game—no commentary, no media columns, no coaching, no books—and focus on his interests outside it.
Where did so much talent, such confidence, such awareness of context come from? It is impossible to tell, because before Dhoni there was no one Dhoni-like; he arrived fully formed and unique. He grew up in front of our eyes, going from the boy who was advised by a President not to cut his hair to the grey eminence of a team that goes to England with a chance to repeat what his team did in 2011.
(Suresh Menon is editor, Wisden India Almanack)